Confederation Report (December 2009)
“Laws are like Sausages. It’s better not to see how they are made.” Otto Von Bismark, the bloke who invented Germany in the 19th century said that. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? And the reason that pithy little quote sprang from the squelching senile bog that inhabits my cranium, was because a young lady from Milford Haven, confused by a citizenship class at school, e-mailed the law spot I do for Radio Pembrokeshire, (I do sports reports and summaries as well and have been described by somebody as “Pembrokeshire’s answer to Stuart Hall”!) asking me to explain how laws were made in this country.
Now when I started on this very silly path to qualification as a Solicitor in the early 1970’s, it was a very easy question to answer. Common Law, Parliament and Precedent. Oh and a few local bye Laws. Of course it isn’t that simple today. And whilst I dutifully totted up the lengthy ledger of Europe, Westminster, Welsh Assembly etc. etc. and bleated them over the airwaves I started to realise how ludicrously overburdened with lawmakers we really are.
It simply isn’t possible to be a “General Practitioner” Solicitor today. Who on earth can keep up with more than one or two areas of specialisation? I remember my old boss in Aberdare, the lovely Alwyn Brooks, being perfectly proficient in Conveyancing, Civil Litigation and Crime. And he practised all three, as well as being the office manager. I long since narrowed my scope to Crime and Mental Health, and even those two formerly compatible areas are now pretty tricky to keep on top of. Well, for me anyway.
And new bits of Law keep sneaking in under the radar. For instance, last week a trial I was doing in Haverfordwest, involving harassment by a former husband (which has been dragging on for nearly a year through new evidence, bad character applications, hearsay admissibility, computer and mobile phone experts reports by the dozen, to name but a few), was rendered totally irrelevant by the introduction on October 1st, of a bit of a 2004 Act, which means that the defendant, found innocent or guilty, can be made the subject of a Restriction Order at the end of the trial. And whilst that cuts court costs and time (which is all that matters of course), it’s hardly Justice, is it?
Hot on the heels of this piece of “New Labour Machievelliism”, came the report in the media that “there are too many crimes being dealt with by Reprimands, Cautions, fixed penalties, slaps on the wrists and stern ticking off’s”. Well, well! Have we not been banging on about this nonsense for some time, dear reader? Of course the person in the clink, who wants to go home for his tea and muffins, is going to accept one of these minor “Don’t do it Again, you naughty grubby little oik” disposals! And isn’t it just corking that it goes into “Gordon’s Big Red Book of Wot Aye hav dun for Brittun sinse Aye wangled the jobb ov Prim Munster wivout an elekshun” (subtitled “New Labour-Tough on Crime!”) as a solved case.
Undeterred by the public furore, “Man of Straw”, inhabiting the parallel universe of “Ming the Merciless” (do you suppose he ever reads the paper or watches the BBC news?), came out with two truly Stalinist dictums. The first was brought to my attention by one of my favourite Learned Clerks at Haverfordwest Mags Court - Rob Cowey. (I refuse to call him a Legal Adviser - that demeans the role). Anyway he was so outraged at an e-mail he received during said trial that he adjourned so that he could show the solicitors who were in court the missive. It appeared that there are far too many Court Clerks in England and Wales, so they will be halved in number. Then, obviously after a lapse of memory whilst he made plans for his next shopping trip, “Baler” Straw announced in a speech to the Magistrates Association Conference in Birmingham, that they should be dealing with a lot more cases, rather than sending them to the Crown Court.
So, let me see if I have this right…… Let’s have fewer courts sitting (the obvious result of having only about 300 odd Court Clerks in the whole of England and Wales), but have considerably more cases dealt with “simply speedily and summarily“. Bear in mind that should they stand still for too long, the cleaners filling the water jugs in the courts of our fair and just land are likely to be press ganged into conducting trials for the Crown or the Defence, that the trial cannot be conducted more than 72 hours after the defendant is charged AND that within that time both sides (but especially the Defence) have to jump through a series of hoops, fill in enough forms to denude your average rain forest, somehow get a source of funding, tell the prosecution EXACTLY what will be said during the trial and rebuild the bridges of Cockermouth at the same time…..Well it beggars belief, doesn’t it.
Tell you what Jack, Old Man - why don’t we just get a few of the lads and lassies performing unpaid work to roll up to the “In justice centres“, block out the word “Magistrates” and paint in “KANGAROO”, in big letters. And while you’re at it, increase the powers of Traffic Wardens to allow them to issue tickets to any Defence Lawyer or Defendant who spends more than 15 minutes sitting on their backsides in any one court on any one case. Or how about re-introducing the Ducking Stool and the Stocks. And a travelling “Witchfinder General”. Could close ALL the courts then. Save a fortune.
On a related topic, I hope you have all been watching Garrows Law on BBC 1 on a Sunday night. It’s terrific. It must be good because I have made the decision to miss “Top Gear” (Clarkson’s rants are great) in order to watch it. It tells of the great Defence Barrister who literally changed the way Justice was served in the 1700’s. He’s aided by a Solicitor played by Alan Alexander, who I think steals the show. As per, it’s the poor old Sol who goes into the cesspit of Newgate prison to take the scrota’s instructions, until Garrow decides to get his pinkies grubby.
Garrow re-invents the practise of advocacy, at a time when there was no legal aid, the defence was not allowed to address the jury directly, the Prosecution had all the rights and a suspended sentence had a rather different meaning involving a gallows and a length of rope. In addition a number of bounty hunters were allowed to roam the land picking up poor devils who they considered guilty of crimes. As a result of his success, Garrow forced fairness and good practice into the Justice system, which became the fairest in the world. Ironic is it not, that three centuries later New Labour is doing its damndest to take us back into the dark ages! Still, Judges might be pleased - they were allowed to have carafes of Burgundy throughout the day, to assist them in coping with the boredom of it all! Anyway, enough of the rant.
The autumn series of courses held by the Confederation has been the most successful ever. My thanks to all the speakers for their marvellous contributions, their only reward for their sterling efforts being a few bottles of wine. Thanks to Mike Walters for the immense amount of toil and persuasion to make it all happen.
I have had the pleasure of attending two very good dinners in the past couple of months. First it was the Rhymney Valley Law Society dinner, held in the historic surroundings of Caerphilly Castle’s Great Hall. It’s always a fantastic do, but this year it was particularly significant, as the President for 2009-10 is none other than the lovely Fran Williams, who is also the Junior Vice President of the Confederation. She is the first Legal Executive to hold either post, and she is a fine ambassador for her branch of the Legal Profession. Many Congratulations to her.
Then the retirement dinner for Gerwyn Watkins, whom I mentioned in the last edition. It was not only a good setting, but there were some excellent speeches from Dave Thomas of the CPS, Geoff Thomas (the former President of Cardiff- as funny as ever), Gerwyn himself and Martyn Prowel, senior partner of the firm of the same name. Martyn has always reduced me to hysterical laughter over the years, and his recollection of the years he and Gerwyn spent at Aberystwyth University was not to be missed! It was great to see so many of the old faces; the two years that I have been away has made the heart grow fonder!
By the time you read this, we will be well into the Festive Season, and I wish you all a very happy time, and health and prosperity for the New Year. I have for the first time in years, the unenviable role of Duty Solicitor for God’s Own County on Christmas Day! Having transferred to the Pembrokeshire scheme in May, it never occurred to me that I might draw that short straw, but of course I am the “New Boy” here, so I get the deal! And there is no Simon Joseph to bail me out. Dear Old Simon, and his much missed Dad, Sol, have been ensuring my undisturbed Turkey dinner and copious amounts of festive cheer for years, and I am grateful. As it happens, my offspring are not making their “ram-raid” until the New Year, so it was going to be a quiet Yule in any event.
It has to be said that the rural scheme is not as busy as that of the Capital, but all the same you never know. Cup of tea, non-brandied mince pie and the “Great Escape” beckons methinks. I leave you with two festive jokes -
• What do you call Santa’s Little Helpers? Subordinate Clauses (close to being legal!)
• What do you call a group of Grandmasters of chess, bragging about their greatest victories in a hotel foyer at their Christmas bash? - Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer!
I’ll get me coat.